Minnesota’s Help Me Grow Program Connects Parents to Services

Otto Gabrielson learns through play at Edina Community Center.

Otto gabrielson is almost 3 years old, and one of his favorite activities is washing his hands. Because he has achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism, he has to stand on a footstool to reach the sink at the Edina Community Center, in a classroom of just himself, his mom and a special education teacher assigned by Edina Public Schools. The mission is to ready Otto for preschool this upcoming fall, when a larger classroom will pose new challenges.

Otto stands over the classroom’s toy bin, for example, unable to reach the foam building blocks at the bottom. Like any average 2-year-old realizing his independence, Otto wants to take them out himself.

“At this point, it’s pretty much us telling him, ‘No, Otto, you still need our help,’ ” says mom Julie Gabrielson.

He must ask someone else to take out the first foam block, which he can then use as a stepping stool to reach the others.

By vocalizing his limits, Otto practices self-advocacy, a skill he’s learned with assistance from Help Me Grow. This statewide initiative connects parents such as Julie and Matt Gabrielson with free early-intervention services for children whose development, for whatever reason, lags—cognitively, as with Down syndrome, socially, as with autism, or physically, as in Otto’s case.

Achondroplasia has kept the muscles in Otto’s legs and feet from strengthening as fast as they do in children without dwarfism. Help Me Grow connected Julie to a special education teacher and an as-needed occupational therapist a year ago. These professionals work with Otto on motor skills—first with his walking and now his stamina, in anticipation of long school hallways.

Julie and Matt knew Otto would need extra attention, but Help Me Grow also assists parents who aren’t sure whether their child is on track or not. In a free packet of educational resources that includes a children’s book, the organization outlines milestones between birth and age 5, such as beginning to run at 18 months and using three-word sentences at three years old. Parents who notice discrepancies can schedule free screenings with a local pediatrician. If the child receives a medical diagnosis or shows need, parents can apply for free intervention under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.

“Many of the development delays that show up in early childhood—for example, speech, expressing and being understood—are things that are very easy to ameliorate,” says Marty Smith, coordinator for Region 11 of Help Me Grow. According to Smith,  the organization helps parents regardless of income or immigrant status.

Resources come in Somali, Karen, Arabic, Oromo and other languages. Help Me Grow provides cultural advocates, too, such as Hmong and Spanish representatives, to spread the word to their respective communities.

Shared language and understanding, after all, prove critical when a child’s personality comes into play.
“[Otto] is a really big sweetheart,” Julie says, “but at the same time, he’s very stubborn.”

After a breakthrough of taking five steps, Otto regressed to crawling. No matter their urging, Julie and Matt couldn’t get him back on his feet for two weeks.

His special education teacher suggested they stop pressuring him. Within 12 hours, he was walking by himself.

Julie and Matt still have to determine whether they will need to pull Otto to recess in a wagon to conserve his energy, but they feel relieved knowing the Edina school system already knows their son. “It makes me way less nervous for him,” Julie says about preschool.